No, it is not New Age and yes, there are plenty of alternatives to the use of acupuncture for those who do not wish to involve themselves in healing modalities that are based on the balancing of a universal life force for which science has no evidence of existence.
In its place are various forms of electroanalgesia, such as PENS, which have been found to be effective in reducing pain; however, for certain people there are risks of serious health problems with these methods – even death. This includes people who are using electrical devices such as pacemakers or internal hearing aids, or with heart problems such as irregular heartbeat. Electroanalgesia techniques should never be used without a doctor’s permission.
For starters, there is PENS, which stands for Per-cutaneous electrical nerve stimulation which is used to treat intractable pain caused by cancer or other disorders.
As this site explains, PENS is a minimally invasive electrical stimulation treatment that helps to change the way pain nerves relay their pain message. Thin needles connected to a battery-powered electrical stimulator are used to deliver a painless burst of electrical stimulation near the nerves and into skin tissue or muscles. The treatment is not uncomfortable and lasts for about 20-30 minutes with follow up treatments required because it can take several attempts to relieve muscle spasms.
“PNT/PENS is a type of neuromodulation,” the site explains. “Neuromodulation is a category of treatment that is designed to alter the way the nervous system (nerves, spinal cord, and/or brain) transmits messages, such as the pain messages that occur when pain nerve cells are stimulated or damaged. Other types of neuromodulation include spinal cord stimulation for refractory pain, and transcranial magnetic stimulation, that is being tested for both depression and for chronic pain.”
Another alternative to acupuncture for pain relief is TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.
This involves the transmission of electrical energy from an external stimulator that could be as small as a pocket radio. The device is connected to the body through electrodes that conduct a circuit of electrical impulses that travel along nerve fibers in the affected areas. Some people experience less pain after a treatment which may be because the electricity from the electrodes stimulates the nerves which send signals to the brain that block or “scramble” normal pain signals. Or, it could be because electrical stimulation of nerves helps the body to produce natural painkillers called endorphins.
Science is currently studying the effectiveness of TENS with mixed results in testing. For this reason, it is still considered an alternative.
However, persons wanting to avoid acupuncture should also steer clear of transcutaneous acupoint electrical stimulation or TAES which is very similar to TENS except that it applies electrical stimulation to traditional Chinese acupoints. These acupoints are associated with energy pathways known as meridians. In Chinese acupuncture, these meridians are needled in various places to balance the flow of an energy not associated with known energies typical to the body but are instead referring to an external energy known as a universal life force (also referred to as chi, ki, prana, yin yang, vital force, etc.) There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of this life force.
Then there’s peripheral nerve stimulation or PNS, which is also used for the relief of chronic pain. This has been around for more than 30 years with recent studies confirming the efficacy of its mechanism, which is to electrically stimulate nerves that inhibit input to pain pathways in the spinal cord. It is most effective in the treatment of neuropathic pain such as diabetic neuropathy.
During a procedure, once the electrodes are in place, they are turned on to administer a weak electrical current to the nerve. “The patient experiences this as a pleasant tingling sensation. By stimulating non painful sensory pathway, the electrical current tricks the brain into turning off (or significantly attenuating) the painful signals. In this manner, pain relief occurs. In general, most patients are then able to reduce or discontinue altogether their pain medications,” explains the Columbia University Medical Center.
Most peripheral nerve stimulation procedures are performed as an outpatient basis with a local anesthetic. Significant postoperative pain and complications are rare, but can occur.
The good news is that none of the above methods use drugs – or acupuncture – and science continues to come up with new and better ways to manage pain.